JR East Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket Outage and Refunds

JR East already announced the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket Service in March 2020 and is busy building a new eTicket system that will start April 1, 2020. This is a huge change, glitches are sure to happen along the way.

A big glitch happened yesterday evening May 24 at 18:00: the Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service went down. Some Apple Pay Suica users experienced performance issues with Suica Recharge in Wallet and adding new Suica cards to Wallet during the outage, Mobile Suica users on Android were affected as well. All services were restored as of May 25 5:30 am local Tokyo time.

During the service outage Mobile Suica users on iPhone (Suica App) and Android (Mobile Suica App) who purchased Shinkansen eTickets could not download purchased eTickets to their device, make any online changes to purchased eTickets, or purchase new eTickets.

JR East will refund any Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets that were purchased or could not be used during the service outage. JR East also stresses that any unsuccessful Suica Recharge attempts are not charged to bank cards. See the JR East Support page (Japanese language only) for details and use the link to apply online for a eTicket refund (Japanese language only).

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Free Mobile Suica for Everybody in 2020

JR East announced the end of the Mobile Suica ¥1030 annual membership fee for all Android devices on February 26 2020. Mobile Suica is free for Apple Pay users. JR East also announced the end of Symbian OS feature phone support with most devices being cut off from Mobile Suica on February 25 2020, and the rest following on December 22 2020 along with some Android devices.

All of the ‘offed’ devices can still use Suica for transit and purchases but are limited to cash recharge which can be done at station kiosks and any convenience store. Users who want to keep their Mobile Suica account will have to migrate to an eligible Apple or Android device.

JR East is also terminating Mobile Suica Shinkansen e-ticket purchases this year and will replace it with a new service similar to JR Central’s Smart EX. Details should be coming soon.

All in all it looks like JR East is clearing the Mobile Suica deck for the 2021 Super Suica launch.

The Japanese Transit Platform Business Model

It’s about time. Somebody from outside Japan finally took in the big picture of the Japanese Transit Platform model and wrote a business outline of it in English. Egon Terplan of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) came to Tokyo and liked what he saw: Falling in Love With the Trains of Japan.

By 2017, Japanese trains carried nearly 30 percent of all rail passengers in the world, more than all of Europe. But unlike many European countries, Japanese rail companies are privatized, with for-profit publicly traded companies running separate rail lines all around the country.

JR East, the largest of the JR companies, carries 17 million passengers per day on 12,300 trains. (By comparison, Amtrak carried just 31.3 million passengers during all of 2016, a record year in ridership; the New York City subway averages 5.5 million daily rides and BART, 430,000.) And JR East’s $26 billion in annual revenue includes no government subsidies.

Terplan then lists what he thinks are the major components:

  1. Allow rail operators to become real estate developers to capture the value they bring to the stations.
  2. Turn stations into major destinations.
  3. Build over tracks to create new land opportunities.
  4. Dramatic reductions in travel time between cities can lead to major increases in rail’s market share.
  5. Interoperable rail cards (Suica, etc.) are key to making rail easy to use nationwide.

Essential points all, but Terplan doesn’t explain the importance of how all the different infrastructure pieces not only integrate (Shinkansen, regular lines, subway, buses, station retail, services, Suica, etc.) but also create a whole that is much larger than the sum of parts, and why. Perhaps he is only outlining the model and will return with a deeper analysis later. I certainly hope so because it’s a great transit model for other countries to adapt and adopt. Hong Kong already has a similar system on a smaller scale as does South Korea and Taiwan.

The last component, nationwide interoperable Japan Transit IC prepaid cards for transit and store purchases aka Apple Pay Suica, is the secret sauce binding everything together into a tight slick business model. That is the missing why and it’s just starting: interoperable features like Shinkansen e-ticketing, commuter passes, local loyalty point systems and hosting everything on digital wallets are still weak points. JR East and Sony are busy creating the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format that aims to integrate everything while reducing costs and taking it to the next level.

The First Shinkansen

I am a sucker for vintage industry promotion films, the kind of thing the third grade home room teacher would show as a treat on a dull Thursday afternoon. The soundtrack was warped, the film was scratched, patched and sometimes got stuck, but it was all fun.

Japanese rail fans love to post vintage photos and I came across this tweet with a fascinating video of the very first Shinkansen test car being pushed by a steam engine to the test site. It’s easy to forget how important the Shinkansen project was to Japan leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Even if you do not understand Japanese you can sense the importance of it all from the film clip: scrubbed technicians in pressed uniforms performing their jobs, testing the infrastructure, analyzing the performance, coaxing that first Shinkansen train to full speed.

It’s hard to believe that the Shinkansen project almost didn’t happen and was built just 18 years after the end of the Pacific War. I wonder how happy the project team felt when the first Shinkansen whooshed by. It must have been a great day. The future arrived at 256 km/h.

My Not Smart Shinkansen Trip with smartEX

Apple Pay Suica Shinkansen EX Quick Guide

I followed all the smartEX registration instructions, honest I did. I logged into EX with my smartEX generated ID and password and purchased my Shinkansen ticket to Nagoya without a hitch. All looked good. At the appointed day and time I went to the Tokyo station Tokaido Shinkansen gate. Everything went to hell.​

​The station attendant placed my iPhone on the reader to diagnose the problem. Despite doing all the right steps my smartEX e-ticket purchase was not linking to my Apple Pay Suica. He then took me to a ticket machine and said, “Enter your smartEX password.” I use Touch ID with EX App and did not know the password, The poor attendant waited while I dug around in Safari passwords to find it. With the password entered he printed out a paper ticket.

The attendant told me that I needed to call smartEX system support to solve the problem. I asked if there was one. He grabbed a smartEX pamphlet but there was no number. He said, “There’s a number listed in the app.” There was not but I said thank you anyway and offered some advice, “I feel sorry for the station attendants if JR Central doesn’t improve smartEX. When the English language version of this drops on October 30, it will be a mess.”

smartEX Weak Points
I used my travel time to dig around in EX App preferences. It was time well spent. smartEX registration can only be done in the browser, but once completed you can edit account information in EX App. The app has a FaceID/Touch ID log in option but there is a separate mandatory security layer for editing smartEX account information:

Generate a onetime password and receive it by email. After entering the onetime password you can edit all your registered information: name, email, credit card, Apple Pay Suica ID:

I re-entered my Apple Pay Suica ID and asked the station attendant in Nagoya to confirm if my smartEX was correct. She placed my iPhone on the reader and confirmed that I was all set now. My return trip was a breeze, smartEX worked fine.

Apple Pay Suica ID Formatting Differnces and Errors
As I said previously smartEX registration is a work in progress and will certainly be a friction point for some inbound Apple Pay Suica users and boils down to the Apple Pay Suica ID number:

  1. Suica App copies the entire 17 character Suica ID (screen shot below)
  2. smartEX only accepts a 15 character ID and automatically formats the pasted ID from Suica App deleting the final 2 characters

Suggestion for Smooth smartEX Experience
Here is a suggestion for a smooth maiden smartEX voyage. The EX App itself cannot verify if everything is in working order with JR East Mobile Suica, but JR Central station attendants at Tokaido Shinkansen ticket gates can verify it for you. Verification requires the following:

  • Successful smartEX registration
  • Successful smartEX login and e-ticket purchase

Tell the Shinkansen gate attendant that you want to verify your smartEX ticket purchase and hand them your iPhone. A quick check on the reader is all that is needed. If all is in order you are assured of a smooth process every time. Have your smartEX ID and password on hand in case something goes wrong. The attendant will need it to print out paper tickets.

UPDATE
The information on this post has been updated to reflect changes in smartEX and Mobile Suica systems. Apple Pay Suica card ID numbers do not change when removed and re-added to Wallet or when migrating Apple Pay Suica to a new device.